Anne here. I was at lunch today with a couple of friends who also write historical romance, and, as is usual with writers, the talk turned to our latest projects, and, since I was of two minds as to which direction to go with my current plot, I ended up explaining it to them. This is my new series — the Chance sisters series — and I was explaining the background of the story to my friends, and was explaining that there’s an old lady in the series, Lady Beatrice, who’s crucial to the plot, when one friend immediately said, “Oh, good, I always love your feisty old ladies,” and the other friend agreed.
I must admit, I was a little surprised. It hadn’t even occurred to me that I’d written all that many old ladies, but on the long, slow drive home (in peak hour traffic — it was a long lunch‚ after all) I thought about it, and to my surprise I realized I actually have written quite a few. And that I really do like including them in my stories. So then I started wondering where the inspiration for these old ladies came from.
(By the way, as some of you know, I often make story collages as an aid to my writing. This is the face I chose for my Lady Beatrice character. Familiar? It should be to those of you in the USA.)
The inspiration didn't come from my grandmothers. Both of them were quite fearsome in very different ways. One was a large, blunt, no-nonsense Irishwoman, who thought little girls were were generally a nuisance and were only there to be be silent and useful. She herself talked non-stop, so there was little chance of any child getting a word in anyway.
The other grandmother was quite a different kettle of fish — elegant, quiet, rather haughty. I don’t recall her ever raising her voice — she didn’t need to. She was the mistress of the cutting remark — nothing was ever quite good enough for her — and nobody. Certainly not the youngest grandchild (me.)
So wherever my fondness for old lady characters came from, it wasn’t from life. Certainly Georgette Heyer was an influence — her books are dotted with wonderfully spirited dowagers and other old ladies of great character, women who use all kinds of methods to get their way, sometimes through control of the family purse-strings, and occasionally employing more subtle weapons such as the vinaigrette and hartshorn. I love, for instance this quote from The Corinthian:
“The third member of the party, reclining limply on the satin sofa, was a lady with quite as much determination as her daughter, and a far more subtle way of getting her wishes attended to. A widow of ten years' standing, Lady Wyndham enjoyed the frailest health. The merest hint of opposition was too much for the delicate state of her nerves; and anyone, observing her handkerchief, her vinaigrette, and the hartshorn which she usually kept by her, would have had to be stupid indeed to have failed to appreciate their sinister message. In youth, she had been a beauty; in middle age, everything about her seemed to have faded: hair, cheeks, eyes, and even her voice, which was plaintive, and so gentle that it was a wonder it ever made itself heard. Like her daughter, Lady Wyndham had excellent taste in dress, and since she was fortunate enough to possess a very ample jointure she was able to indulge her liking for the most expensive fal-lals of fashion without in any way curtailing her other expenses. This did not prevent her from thinking herself very badly off, but she was able to enjoy many laments over her straitened circumstances without feeling the least real pinch of poverty, and to win the sympathy of her acquaintances by dwelling sadly on the injustice of her late husband's will, which had placed his only son in the sole possession of his immense fortune. The jointure, her friends deduced hazily, was the veriest pittance.”
A masterly summing up, is it not? Then of course, there’s Jane Austen, and her glorious Lady Catherine De Burgh.
"What is that you are saying, Fitzwilliam? What is it you are talking of? What are you telling Miss Bennet? Let me hear what it is."
"We are speaking of music, Madam," said he, when no longer able to avoid a reply.
"Of music! Then pray speak aloud. It is of all subjects my delight. I must have my share in the conversation, if you are speaking of music. There are few people in England, I suppose, who have more true enjoyment of music than myself, or a better natural taste. If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient. And so would Anne, if her health had allowed her to apply. I am confident that she would have performed delightfully. How does Georgiana get on, Darcy?"
P.G.Wodehouse is undoubtedly another influence on me, especially the Bertie Wooster books. Bertie had a seemingly endless supply of aunts, all women of great determination and spirit, who make poor Bertie’s life a misery by requiring him to be useful — a fearful fate for a young man about town. His attitude to them is perhaps best summed up by the title, Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen.
And then there’s Stella Gibbons’s magnificent grandmother who holds all the members of her considerable family in an iron grip, slaves to her will, on the grounds that when she was but a slip of a girl, “she saw something nasty in the woodshed.” Until, of course, the heroine of that books arrives and proceeds to unravel all the ties that bind, in most hilarious fashion.
So of course, these literary forebears go a long way in explaining why I so enjoy including the odd eccentric old lady (and the occasional old gentleman) in my books. Old ladies (and old gentleman) are wonderful for a touch of comedy — they are generally beyond the age of having to seek society’s approval— indeed they often care nothing for what others might think—and as a result often of having lived a very comfortable and privileged life, have acquired the expectation that things will happen the way they want — and if not, they’ll dashed well make it happen! Through whatever means they can.
Then there’s a rich history of magnificent old ladies on TV and in movies — Maggie Smith’s character in Downton Abbey, for instance, and Judi Dench has played plenty of wonderful roles. I used to adore Dame Margaret Rutherford, who played so many dotty and eccentric old ladies.
So let’s hear from you — do you enjoy eccentric older characters in books, TV or movies? Who are some of your favorites?
And can you identify the lady in the portrait at the top of this post?